Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 12735, no. 129 P&P).


Bethune, Mary Jane McLeod (10 July 1875-18 May 1955), organizer of black women and advocate for social justice, was born in Mayesville, South Carolina, the child of former slaves Samuel McLeod and Patsy McIntosh, farmers. After attending a school operated by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen, she entered Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina, in 1888 and graduated in May 1894. She spent the next year at Dwight Moody's evangelical Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago, Illinois. In 1898 she married Albertus Bethune. They both taught, briefly, at the Kindell Institute in Sumter, South Carolina. The marriage was not happy. They had one child and separated late in 1907. After teaching in a number of schools, Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Training Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida, in 1904. Twenty years later the school merged with a boys' school, the Cookman Institute, and was renamed Bethune-Cookman College in 1929. Explaining why she founded the training school, Bethune remarked, "Many homeless girls have been sheltered there and trained physically, mentally and spiritually. They have been helped and sent out to serve, to pass their blessings on to other needy children."

In addition to her career as educator, Bethune helped found some of the most significant organizations in black America. In 1920 Bethune became vice president of the National Urban League and helped to create the women's section of its Commission on Interracial Cooperation. From 1924 to 1928 she also served as the president of the National Association of Colored Women. In 1935, as founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women, Bethune forged a coalition of hundreds of black women's organizations across the country. Bethune served from 1936 to 1950 as president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, later known as the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. In 1935 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded Bethune its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal. She received honorary degrees from ten universities, the Medal of Honor and Merit from Haiti (1949), and the Star of Africa Award from Liberia (1952). In 1938 she participated along with liberal white southerners in the annual meetings of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare.

Bethune's involvement in national government began in the 1920s during the Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover presidential administrations when she participated in child welfare conferences. In June 1936 Bethune became administrative assistant and, in January 1939, director in charge of Negro Affairs in the New Deal National Youth Administration (NYA). This made her the first black woman in U.S. history to occupy such a high-level federal position. Bethune was responsible for helping vast numbers of unemployed 16- to 24-year-old black youths find jobs in private industry and in vocational training projects. The agency created work relief programs that opened opportunities for thousands of black youths, which enabled countless black communities to survive the depression. She served in this office until the NYA was closed in 1944.

During her service in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, Bethune organized a small but influential group of black officials who became known as the "Black Cabinet." Prominent among them were William Hastie of the Department of the Interior and the War Department and Robert Weaver, who served in Interior and several manpower agencies. The Black Cabinet did more than advise the president; they articulated a black agenda for social change, beginning with demands for greater benefit from New Deal programs and equal employment opportunities.

In 1937 in Washington, D.C., Bethune orchestrated the National Conference on the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth, which focused on concerns ranging from better housing and health care for African Americans to equal protection of the laws. As an outspoken advocate for black civil rights, she fought for federal anti-poll tax and antilynching legislation. Bethune's influence during the New Deal was further strengthened by her friendship with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

During World War II Bethune was special assistant to the secretary of war and assistant director of the Women's Army Corps. In this post she set up the first officer candidate schools for the corps. Throughout the war she pressed President Roosevelt and other governmental and military officials to make use of the many black women eager to serve in the national defense program; she also lobbied for increased appointments of black women to federal bureaus. After the war she continued to lecture and to write newspaper and magazine columns and articles until her death in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Urged by the National Council of Negro Women, the federal government dedicated the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Statue at Lincoln Park in southeastern Washington, D.C., on 10 July 1974. Bethune's life and work provide one of the major links between the social reform efforts of post-Reconstruction black women and the political protest activities of the generation emerging after World War II. The many strands of black women's struggle for education, political rights, racial pride, sexual autonomy, and liberation are united in the writings, speeches, and organization work of Bethune.



Essays written by Bethune include two pieces on the importance of Negro history: "Clarifying Our Vision with the Facts," Journal of Negro History 23 (Jan. 1938): 10-15, and "The Negro in Retrospect and Prospect," Journal of Negro History 35 (Jan. 1950): 9-19. The most insightful treatment of Bethune's multifaceted involvement in the New Deal remains B. Joyce Ross, "Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Youth Administration: A Case Study of Power Relationships in the Black Cabinet of Franklin D. Roosevelt," Journal of Negro History 60 (Jan. 1975): 1-28. More general information is available in Rackman Holt, Mary McLeod Bethune: A Biography (1964). Elaine M. Smith, "Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Youth Administration," in Clio Was a Woman: Studies in the History of American Women, ed. Mabel E. Deutrich and Virginia C. Purdy (1980), provides a lively and more detailed account of Bethune's political career. An obituary is in the New York Times, 19 May 1955.

Darlene Clark Hine

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American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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